“I have the strangest allergy I’ve only discovered in the last couple years,” revealed petite wealth manager and socialite Alexandra Lebenthal, arriving Monday, Dec. 7, for the 12th annual Food Allergy Ball at the Waldorf. “I’m allergic to tomatoes. But not in the way other people are, where they get hives. I actually get a sore throat, strep throat, fevers, cold, and I’ll be sick for two weeks! I’ve spent my whole life with everyone saying, ‘Why is she always sick?’”
Ms. Lebenthal, clad in a flowing red Carolina Herrera skirt and massive gemstone earrings, credited a “part holistic, part traditional” doctor for the breakthrough; she has since excised the offending fruit from her diet (“except ketchup. I’m totally fine with ketchup”). Still, a new empathy had encouraged her to attend tonight’s ball, despite her three allergy-free offspring. “I’m sort of this newcomer to saying, ‘There can’t be any tomatoes, or peanuts, or whatever,’” she said.
Around her, the food-allergy crowd nibbled fried mac-and-cheese bites prepared by this year’s guest chef and Lifetime Achievement Award Winner, Emeril Lagasse (a full list of ingredients was available on the serving platter). Mary Richardson Kennedy, wife of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.—himself stuck in West Virginia—brought her allergic son, Conor; billionaires David and Julia Koch left theirs home this year; restaurateurs Drew Nieporent and Daniel Boulud gamely mingled.
Tales of prandial woe abounded. “I’ll tell you the saddest thing,” said Ms. Koch, a tall woman with excellent posture in a floor-length white confection with matching white fur stole. “We’re at the Yankees World Series game, and [food-allergic son David Jr., age 11] is sitting there with his popcorn that we brought and he looked around and he could smell all the delicious food, and he said, ‘When am I ever going to be able to eat real food?’” Ms. Koch shook her head. “Unless I can go talk to the chef personally and verify all the ingredients, it’s just not worth it.” David Jr.’s Manhattan private school, whose name Ms. Koch requested be withheld, had been very cooperative. “He used to have to carry around his emergency kit in the school on his belt loop and in Central Park,” she said. But now, “the kitchen is aware of it, the nurse is aware of it; they have EpiPens on every floor.”
Charles Koppelman, executive (chairman of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia and Monday evening’s guest of honor, had two food-allergic adolescent granddaughters in tow. “When you go to a restaurant, you’re kind of interrogating everybody,” he said. “Is the waiter using peanuts? Has the chef ever had a peanut?” “What I’m going to say tonight,” he continued, referring to his planned dinner speech, “is, ‘Forget Amex, I don’t leave home without my EpiPen!’”
Friends like Mr. Koch and Mr. Koppelman helped the Food Allergy Initiative raise $3.9 million on Monday night alone (which was down from more than $5 million at 2007’s ball, but still trounced the $1.5 million New Yorkers for Children raised at its fall gala in September). As one attendee at the Transom’s table reported hearing as he entered the ballroom, “If your kid’s going to be sick with something, let’s hope they’re sick with something the rich people’s kids are sick with, because then they fix it.” Harvard medical sociologist Nicholas Christakis pointed out in the British Medical Journal last year that food allergies kill 150 people a year (some researchers put the figure at 200), as compared to bee stings (50), lightning strikes (100) and motor vehicle collisions (45,000). He argued that our inflation of the threat—many U.S. elementary schools have outlawed peanuts—bore “many of the hallmarks of mass psychogenic illness (MPI).”
The Food Allergy Initiative promptly replied, issuing a press release disputing many of Mr. Christakis’ claims. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in 2008 that the number of young people with food allergies had increased 18 percent between 1997 and 2007.
In a speech at the Waldorf, FAI board president Todd Slotkin outlined several promising treatments in the works, including a Chinese herbal therapy being developed by the prominent allergist Dr. Hugh Sampson of Mt. Sinai (ready as soon as 2011) and a parasite “similar to those found in the stomachs of most citizens in developing countries,” which could someday be introduced into imperiled Upper East Side intestines, the theory being that “in the developed world, we live in too clean of an environment, so our immune system has nothing familiar to attack.”
In the meantime, guests mulled a world in which the peanut-butter sandwich had gone the way of marbles and rotary phones. “Peanut butter and jelly is not like it was when we were growing up,” said Ms. Lebenthal, whose daughter insisted her bat mitzvah last month be peanut-free to accommodate an allergic best friend. “Tomatoes actually come from the digitalis family,” she said. “Which is foxglove, and that is poisonous. Somebody told me that when the Europeans came to the New World, the Indians came out with tomatoes, which they assumed was a welcome gift, but it wasn’t!”
“You’d better fact-check that,” piped up her husband.